Day Four – “Random Shit That My Family Haven’t Thrown Away For 800 Years”

In this great country of ours there are many stately homes, ancient buildings, museums, and castles to visit for we as a country have a couple of thousand years of inhabitation to dwell on and in some parts of it you cannot dig very far at all without stumbling upon another civilisation’s left-behind junk.

Some, in fact, most of the ancient halls and stately homes that you visit offer a rather false impression of what life was like to the people who lived there before we paid our admission fee to visit – yes I’m thinking of you Harewood House, and you Castle Howard – putting out all of the family silver on the dining room table and pretending that this is how you always eat your breakfast doesn’t really convince anyone you know.

And then occasionally, occasions that are unfortunately rare to come by, you find a gem hidden in the English countryside, a truly ancient building full of truly ancient stuff where no museum curator has ever dared to tread or clinically catalogue a single artifact, a place owned and presented by a true English aristocratic eccentric who believes in hand writing notes on old scrap paper and pinning them to each item of stuff that he’s found in the attic for you to find and read, a place where he’s just rammed as much crap as he can into each and every room whether relevant or not and presented it in a style that says, “Hey look, random shit that my family have refused to throw away for the last 800 years”

And I love it, its my style.

I’m speaking of course as one who prefers to throw his newly laundered clothes onto the bed and hence to the floor rather than hang them up in a wardrobe to my wifes constant annoyance, and to her constant annoyance my reply of “Well I never lost any of my clothes at all, not once, I know where they all are, they are on the floor, you can’t find your shoes at the moment can you ?”

Sir Edward Humphry Tyrell Wakefield probably throws all of his clothes on the floor too, he seems like a man I could get along with.

For reasons of a medical nature we were four in number when we purchased our discounted admission tickets to Chillingham Castle from the Tourist Information Office in Wooler – theres a tip for you, it doesn’t always work but find a Tourist Info Office nearby and ask what they can offer you – what can I say, I’m a Yorkshireman.

There is a delightful shamble-ness about Chillingham and it starts when you park your car, you follow the signs to the car park and find your self in a wood where people abandon their vehicles in amongst the trees, a short walk takes you to the castle frontage – its pretty imposing, don’t forget that in the 13th century when most of the castle fortifications were built this whole area of the country was a bit vague, it was a sort of no-mans land between England and Scotland, the English nobility were pretty much sure that they owned it but those pesky Scottish Kings kept raising the clans and venturing south to push the boundaries a tad further south.

Chillingham became a stopping off post for many an English King on his way North to massacre a few thousand Scots, in 1298 King Edward 1st made Chillingham his base during his crushing of the William Wallace rebellion, the quaint title he gave himself of “Hammer of the Scots” hinting at what happened to many a clan.

There’s a dungeon of course, but being a genuine 13th century castle you don’t get to stand behind ropes and have a guide explain and point it to you, oh no, you get free rein to go anywhere you please and so we did and when three of us had bent double and tripped up over uneven floors to almost crawl down the narrow passage way into the dungeon hole then Janice got stuck in the doorway and we’d have been there still if we hadn’t pushed and shoved her backwards down the passageway, seriously, this is one ace place for adults to play in.

The Still Room was the first room we went into and it was immediately apparent that this would be no normal stately home visit for in the Still Room is housed lots of random schizzle, such as …

A huge dog sled used by the arctic explorer Norman Vaughan plus harnesses, whips and other explorer stuff
A massive cast iron pot (I mean six foot in diameter) for cooking in, or boiling missionaries in the jungle
A smaller cast iron pot for boiling up oil to tip over the walls when the Scots arrive
Lots of stuff from the current Sir Humphry’s Uncle who was also an explorer and climbed Everest in tweeds before Mallory did.
And of course the witch of Chillingham who has placed a curse on anyone who steals from the castle together with letters from people who “found” stuff  in their pockets after they got home, had all sorts of horrible boils and infections overcome them, and sent the Chillingham souvenirs back with an apology to the witch and could she make them better again ?

That was just for starters.

We went into the dark, damp, subterranean torture chambers next, except Suzanne who looked in there but was too scared.

In a place like Chillingham you really have to keep your eyes open and take in everything, his Lordship has left some scribbled notes pinned to things and there is probably a guidebook too but Christ knows where they would ever start, suffice to say that when you go into the torture chambers none of it will really make any sense unless you spot the side-chamber where a series of old wall plaques display with the aid of drawings and quaint olde English exactly what a torture chamber operator needs to do in order to get his torture chamber operators licence, its like the manual of torture chambers, a recipe book for the best way to impale someone on a spike, for instance there was one board that read …

“He shall have a rod inserted into the anus until it cometh through the skull” and a diagram least you be any doubt as to what you’ve just read and bugger me (a rather unfortunate choice of phrase I must admit) there around the next corner is the very spike that you’ve just read about with a de-fleshed Scottish person impaled upon it.

“He shall be griddled upon hot coals” says another and there’s a drawing of ye olde torture chamber operators barbecuing a Scot, probably on a bank holiday if the rain kept off, and sure enough, the griddle is in the next room too.

In the darkness there is what looks like a normal wooden armchair with a small note attached advising visitors not to use this chair for sitting down on – you feel a little closer and discover that the seat has numerous spikes sitting up through it – one day, some old lady with tired and aching feet will wander in there…

But of all the extreme methods of torture described and illustrated there was one that made us all really cringe, I mean REALLY cringe…

“He shall have slivers of bamboo inserted underneath his fingernails” eeeee-eeeugggh, no,no,no, make it go away mother, what a set of bastards.

Its got ghosts of course, lots of them, well are you really surprised what with successive English Kings making this their base for housing the unfortunate Scots who were captured on the battlefields in order to keep the torture chamber in full production – its been on “Most Haunted” and the episode is on YouTube if you believe that Derek Acorah is not actually just a Scouse Shyster who preys on peoples gullible-ness at a time of grieving, anyway, search for it, its slightly amusing  .

And we’d only just started with the rest of the castle, there followed room after room of stuff, stuff upon stuff, imagine that you asked everyone in your street to get all of their stuff out of their lofts and garden sheds, bring it all around to your house, and you then lay everything out in every room of your house in no particular order and go around pinning notes on some of it – then invite someone to come around and wander freely trying to make sense of it all – thats Chillingham Castle, and have I told you how brilliant the concept is yet, its brilliant just in case I haven’t.

There’s a drawing room upstairs for instance, a large room with a huge fireplace at one end and its crammed with furniture and photographs of the family, so much stuff that you can barely take it all in and then one of the guides who occasionally wander through points out the two tall china pagoda-style ornaments in each of the windows are 16th century tulip planters and when they were last valued ten years ago they were worth £60k each and you wonder why up until now you thought all of this stuff was actually just family junk, its then that he explains that his current Lordship was a director at Sothebys and an avid collector of random schizzle – and then he points out the bath in the bay window and you look again and realise that yes, there is a bath in the bay window and why the hell would anyone put a bath in their drawing room, in the bay window and the guide explains that its as good a place as any to display the 18th century French bath tub that His Lordship bought at an auction of some of Mick Jaggers random schizzle  from one of this apartments in New York – Mick Jagger and His Lordship seem to have a similar infliction to collect random schizzle.

Seriously, this is one place that everyone should visit, several times, its only a week since I was there but I’ll be willing to bet that if I went back today then I’d see a hundred different things that I missed the first time around, and we didn’t even get time to go to the farm where they breed the famous Chillingham Cattle, a breed that is as close to ancient wild cattle as not to be any different at all.

Is it suitable for children ?

Oh yes, surely it is, ok so there’s a warning on the torture chamber door that children should not be taken in there but what right minded child wouldn’t want to see a de-skinned man with a spike stuck through his bottom so that it comes out through his skull ?

OK, so they might not sleep properly for a few weeks after that and probably won’t fight with pointed sticks again for a long time, but its character building and you can always tell them that THIS is the real Hogwarts and not that expensive pseudo castle at Alnwick down the road.

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